Terra Incognita: Sex, the city and the truth about Dubai

The movie’s decision to use the Emirates as a background betrays the degree to which Westerners turn a blind eye to human rights violations in the region.

June 1, 2010 23:24
IN THIS film publicity image released by Warner Br

sex and the city dubai 311. (photo credit: AP)

The brilliant people behind the Sex and the City franchise decided to expand the habitat of their show beyond the confines of New York for its movie sequel, which has just been released. In the first Sex and the City movie, they briefly sent the women to Mexico. For the second, the idea was to send the cast to the exotic playground of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Alas, this was all too much for the Dubai authorities, who banned the film.  This didn’t make the producers flinch one bit, and they set off for Dubai’s high-flying neighbor, Abu Dhabi. When they ran into issues there as well, they settled for filming in Morocco, the scene of such desire-ridden Orientalist films as Hideous Kinky and Under the Sheltering Sky. But the trailer to Sex and the City 2 still plays up the Abu Dhabi plot line. Few commentators following the film through the Middle East quagmire have spoken about a more important question: Isn’t it time the West stopped glorifying the United Arab Emirates? 

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To her credit one film critic, Debbie Schlussel, did comment on the irony that Sex and the City was rewarding the Emirates at a time when it was busy arresting and sentencing Western couples for sins such as kissing in public.

Sex and the City’s decision to use the Emirates as a background betrays the degree to which Westerners turn a blind eye to human rights violations in the region. While many Europeans wear badges of honor from protest marches in Gaza and the West Bank, they feel no compunction about going to the Arabian Gulf for vacation. Are they ignorant of what is going on there?

THE UNITED Arab Emirates in the past 10 years has turned itself into a vacationers’ and expat paradise for Europeans and others. Whether it was indoor ski resorts or fake islands, the Emirates pulled out all the stops to create a sort of Cancun-Caribbean-Las Vegas all in one. And it was rewarded with mass media coverage. National Geographic gave it a cover, and the Economist lauded it.

But like some line from the cult film Wizards, “then stories began coming back.” A February 2009 article in The New York Times revealed that foreigners were abandoning thousands of cars at Dubai International Airport as they fled the country. Sofia, a French woman, noted that she feared being jailed for having run up a debt after purchasing an apartment and a car when times were good.  The Times revealed that “jobless people here lose their work visas, and then must leave the country within a month.”

Salacious stories about Westerners being prosecuted for crimes of morality, such as kissing, made news at the BBC and elsewhere. 

But few people discussed the other side of what was happening in the Emirates. The tragedies were not confined to a few kissing Britons or French women abandoning apartments and cars.  The real evil being done in the Emirates was the one done to the foreign workers imported over the past few decades to build the famous skyline; the indoor ski arenas and skyscrapers that made the place a playground. 

In an article entitled “Dark Side of the Dubai Dream” in an April edition of BBC-Panorama, author Lila Allen shed light on what many had feared to speak about. 

Allen noted that “it is a place in the sun for over a million of us who holiday there.” Using a hidden camera, reporters infiltrated one of the work camps where foreign workers are housed. According to estimates, the population of Dubai is 90 percent foreigners, with local Arabs being the only group allowed citizenship. Abu Dhabi is similar, although the other four less-populated emirates that constitute the UAE have higher numbers of citizen locals. The foreign workers pay as much as $2,500 to recruitment agents in South Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to get to the UAE. Once in the Emirates, their passports are sometimes confiscated by their employers, and they are herded into work camps hidden in the desert.  They live a dozen to a room, sleeping in barracks-like environments and subsisting on potatoes and lentils. Allen’s BBC story noted that they don’t receive the wages they were promised, and often live in unsanitary conditions.  If they are lucky enough to be paid, they receive around $200 a month for a six-day work week. 

In Dubai, the government prosecutes those who portray the country as anything other than a paradise. In a recent case, 17 Indians were sentenced to death after having confessions tortured from them, allegedly with electric shocks. Anecdotal stories from friends who resided there tell of local Emiratis attempting to hit foreign workers with their cars, attending sex clubs where women forced into prostitution are tortured and of terrible abuse meted out to Filipina maids. Dubai appears to be little better than a modern slave state built on a tsunami of misery.

YET DESPITE these facts, Westerners continue to coddle this cesspool. Sex and the City never once reconsidered its desire to shoot in the Gulf, and Western cultural institutions such as the Louvre have established museums there. Western educational institutions have followed suit.   

Sex and the City 2 has been accused of being anti-Muslim because the ladies “embarrass Muslim men with their provocative attire and sexual innuendo.”

They dress immodestly, and one of the characters spills condoms on the ground at the market and simulates sex in front of Muslim men. The UAE is a fleshpot of prostitutes imported from Eastern Europe, and Muslim men routinely date non-Muslim women from places like Ukraine. The “provocative” way the Sex in the City characters act is what the UAE is used to.

The tragedy is that the movie perpetuates the lie that Muslim men are sexually repressed, and if only they saw more porn and half-nude Western women, they would become open-minded. In fact, throwing sex at men does not make them open-minded, it merely reinforces their view of women as chattel. The UAE is a land of chattel, from the Muslim women to the foreign workers, and the only way to combat this is to boycott the country, not give it free advertising in Sex and the City.  

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.

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